Meeting the Challenge: Women CIOs

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A recent discussion among six female chief information officers (CIOs) in higher education was facilitated by Norma Holland, director of Leadership Program Management and Professional Development for EDUCAUSE. The conversation covered topics ranging from mentorship to the job's nature to the importance of fearlessness, but one subject offered a provocative undercurrent to the conversation: Are discussions of "women CIOs" still needed, or have we moved into an era where a CIO's gender no longer matters — in higher education at least?

Noting that being a woman in a leadership role seems less an issue today than when they first started out, several participants had difficulty sorting out whether that was true for women in general, or simply reflected their own advancement and advancing confidence.

"Twenty years ago or 30 years ago, I felt it certainly was the case that I had to do a lot extra to prove myself and my capabilities," said Sharon Blanton. "I don't feel it so much now, and maybe that gets back to an increase in self-confidence. Or not. … Today, I think, generally speaking, it's a much more even playing field." Indeed, as the following comments show, what is surely remarkable about these six women is the passion and commitment they all have for the varied and challenging work of a CIO.

The CIO Experience

A CIO's responsibility for an institution's information technology (IT) and computer systems and for ensuring that those systems support the institution's goals is clear. What this translates into day to day is an often unpredictable and typically challenging job — and one that all of the participants relish.

"It never really gets old for me. I enjoy it so much," said Blanton. "It's an interesting role, because the CIO gets to play in a lot of areas throughout the institution, so it's a little bit unusual compared to some of our peer positions in the organization."

Bridget Barnes agreed. "It's a type of job where it's something different every day. You're learning something new, or have a new challenge every single day," she said. "I think that's a key driver for me as well as others."

Kelli Trosvig noted that IT has already inspired tremendous change in the business world, and is now becoming a change agent in higher education as well. "A great place to be a CIO is in higher education right now, because higher education is looking to their CIOs to help them really change the institution," said Trosvig, adding that it's a fun job, but not an easy one; before taking it on, she said people should clearly investigate what it involves. Once they do, however, they sometimes gravitate toward other options.

Trosvig sees this first-hand through the leadership program she runs at the University of Washington. "I think these jobs are incredibly stressful and pressure-cooker," she said, adding that many people who complete the program decide not to pursue a CIO position because of what it demands. "It's interesting to me how many people decide they don't want to be a formal IT leader, and they want to focus on developing their technical career versus their management career after [the program]," she said. "A good 10 percent of the class decide they don't want to be management track, at least for now, and they take other positions with less of a leadership focus after the class, because it's demanding to be a leader and to do it well. One of the things that we emphasize in our Leadership Development Program is that timing has to be right to do this in your life and saying "no" now doesn't mean "no" forever."

Blanton said it helps if potential CIOs have both a desire to constantly improve things and a willingness to constantly learn. "My advice to anyone considering the position would be to really reach out and talk to people who have been in the role, learn more about it, and then make sure you seek out a position that makes sense for you," she said. "Don't chase the title, but chase the work that is of most interest to you. It's so important that we be completely fulfilled by these jobs that we take on. It makes all the difference in the world to have the right match — the right position, in the right place, at the right time."

Characteristics of a Good CIO

Of the many qualities discussed that can help ensure CIO success, the most surprising one that might not be required — initially, at least — was confidence.

Viji Murali started out as a programmer and researcher. She didn't perceive herself as being all that confident until she started working with her mentor, Mely Tynan. "Through that process, I learned that I did have the confidence, but I didn't know going in that I did," said Murali.

Barnes agreed, noting that confidence wasn't a key factor in her own rise: "I don't really feel like confidence played a role. I would describe it as determination. I was always seeking the next job — I mean always — and was told 'no' several times for years," she said. For one particular position, Barnes said she was stuck in an interim position while the institution did two different national searches. "I went through that process twice. I was just very determined to keep on doing the best I could, keep taking on more challenges," she said. "Through that determination, I landed the role — just never saying no. … This is the perfect job for me. I continue to strive for improvement and am consistently challenged so that I am no longer looking for the next job."

For others, the attraction focused less on the upward climb than on the excitement generated by each particular new task. "For me … it was a drive to keep improving," said Blanton. "I kept seeing things and thinking, 'Wow. There's a better way to do that.' I wanted to be the person to do that thing in a better way." This process, she said, ultimately fed her confidence. "I had a long history of just finding things and then wanting to be involved in making them better. Over the years, the more experience you get with being successful, the more confidence you gain."

In addition to confidence, said Brooks, being on the job over time also gives you more "tools" to tackle problems. Going in, however, she said the key factor for her was not so much confidence, as fearlessness. "I would be willing to jump in and give something a try," she said, noting that fearlessness also played a role in "just reaching out and building [relationships with] colleagues and building the networks."

Melissa Woo affirmed the value of a fearless attitude. "I didn't come from IT. I came from health physics, and I tossed it all. I had been in the field for about five to six years at that point and started all over again as an entry-level UNIX system administrator. I'd say there was an element of fearlessness in that, and I think that's what has characterized my entire career," she said, adding that having a bias toward action and experimentation helps.

"The people in the senior leadership joke with me that I'm a pilot. I'm always piloting new things," said Trosvig. "There's a little bit of risk in these positions. You're always out there a little bit on the edge of things. I'm not sure it's self-confidence or if it's a risk-taking mentality…. I don't think that the CIO role is for the faint of heart, especially now."

The CIO job favors people who are unflinching in the face of uncertainty, according to Trosvig. "I think you have to be adventurous and naturally curious and like new things. You know that even nine months or a year from now your job is going to be entirely different than what you imagine it's going to be … you're going to have to learn new skills, adapt, and think about things differently," she said, adding that one of the biggest challenges as CIO is determining how to keep both yourself and your organization relevant by reinventing the IT. "It's a very fast-changing, fast-paced role."

According to Murali, it's a role that has changed over the past decade; in earlier years, the CIO was often a technical position filled by "people capable of technical things." Today, however, several participants noted that the CIO role is as much about building relationships as IT systems.

"I think one of the things we haven't talked about is the soft skills that women bring to the table — not in a negative way, but in a positive way — which are building relationships, obviously risk-taking, and being able to be flexible given all the changes that are going around us," Murali said. "Women thrive in this combination of soft and technology worlds. That's where we are today. Also, the innovative aspects of our technology and how we, as women, embrace it as opposed to saying, 'Well, this is what we are going to be dealing with.' I think that women are much more closely suited to this role than ever before."

CIO job descriptions don't always reflect these soft skills, however, which can deter some women from going after positions that they'd excel in, noted Murali. "Some women looking at CIO job descriptions have said to me, 'Oh, I could never do that. I don't know this, and they're asking for that, and I don't know that,'" said Barnes. "Sometimes women feel like they need to know every nit that is on the job description where it's a generality, but I know a few men who have gone for CIO positions and certainly didn't know half of what was on the job description, but just, you know, went in and did it."

This tendency to not go after a position until they've mastered every stated requirement is something that studies have shown women are more likely than men to exhibit.1 So, in terms of advice, Brooks suggested that interested women go for the CIO jobs rather than opt out because they don't meet every qualification. "I think if any of us had done that, we never would have gotten the positions we have today," she said.

The Importance of Mentors

Most participants cited mentors and role models as an important part of success, and yet Murali noted that women often don't seek them out. "The first thing women have to seek out is mentorship," she said. "Even if they think they're fearless, even if they think they've got all the self-confidence, it's always helpful to have both female and male mentors."

Murali said that having a female boss at the University of Arizona was her big break, especially coming, as she did, from an entirely different field. "I'm an organic chemist by training," she said. "The fact that I had a female boss, who was the CIO at the University of Arizona, she was my mentor and still is. She was literally the cause of taking a lot of the young women in the IT organization, mentoring us personally, and allowing us to move forward. I believe it is a huge component that women have paved the way for other women — and she's a great example of doing that."

Trosvig had a similar experience at the University of Washington. "We had a senior women administration team, which I think is unusual in higher education to have that many women in one place in a major research university," she said. "The spirit of collaboration that sometimes happens when there are many women in like fields helps a lot."

Having mentors in many fields is valuable, said Trosvig. "They don't necessarily need to be in IT, and a lot of the IT problems that you have aren't necessarily IT. They are people problems, and there's lots of good people, men and women, who are good mentors to women leaders," she said.

Brooks agreed, adding that a mentor need not be in a higher position. "I think that mentors can come from anywhere, and I actually also would say that they don't have to be people that are senior to you," she said. "I feel as if I've had some very good peer mentoring as well, and I think that's helped me a lot."

For many women, simply observing a woman succeeding in a leadership role in their institution can be important. Woo no doubt inspires many — though she's typically focused on a broader sense of both herself and others.

"Unless I look in the mirror, sometimes I forget what I am, because it doesn't matter as far as I'm concerned. I don't consciously recognize color or gender, other than a convenient way of recognizing people. People are just people to me," she said. "I think the best that any of us can do is simply to be doing our job confidently and competently, and just being visible, because having an actual example or set of examples out there is what encourages other people."

  1. See, for example, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandburg with Nell Scovell (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), in which she states, "Internal research by Hewlett-Packard found that women only apply for jobs for which they feel they are a 100% match; men do so even when they meet no more than 60% of the requirements."